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Tony Bacon’s Million Dollar Les Paul

Published: Tue February 03, 2009  News Feed

“Once I got one, I wanted more,” Les Paul collector Tom Wittrock tells author Tony Bacon in describing his addiction. Although the comment arrives half way through Bacon’s Million Dollar Les Paul (Jawbone Press 2008, $19.95), the confession sets the tone for this gripping book, and in more ways than one.

the Les paul book

[from Gibson.com] Not only does the collector yearn for more, more, more in his quest for the ultimate Burst, the reader is likewise compelled forward in this trenchant and unerringly entertaining examination of the world’s most valuable guitar, probing fact after anecdote after previously-untold history. The elevation of the 1958-’60 sunburst Les Paul Standard from mere musical instrument to cultural icon and collector’s item sets the premise for Bacon’s exploration of the history, myth, cult and legend of the so-called Burst, and ripe subject matter it proves to be.

Sure, the evolution of the goldtop Les Paul in to the Burst of the late ’50s has been well documented, and this guitar’s further rise to prices in the “fraction-of-a-million” category still takes our breath away, but Bacon’s search for the most valuable Les Paul on the planet — undertaken both literally and figuratively — makes a surprisingly gripping tale, and one that any real guitar fan will find difficult to put down.

Part travelogue across the landscape created by the legend itself, part quest for demystification, and part intricate documentation of this collectible instrument’s rise into the stratosphere, Million Dollar Les Paul — in the course of laying out its story — spends time with the Gibson craftsmen who made the instrument, the major artists who have recognized its brilliance, and the dealers and collectors who have fallen prey to its timeless allure. The passages that resonate most for me, though, are those in which the great Les Paul players step right out of rock and blues history to tell us precisely why, when, and how they got hooked by the Burst.

Whether it’s Eric Clapton …

“I would hit a note, hold it, and give it some vibrato with my fingers, until it sustained, and then the distortion would turn into feedback. It was all of these things, plus the distortion, that created what I suppose you could call my sound.”

… Or Jeff Beck…

“Hearing Peter Green and Eric [Clapton] use [a Les Paul], it just changed my opinion about it … When you turn up to ridiculous beyond-all-belief distortion and make use of it to feedback, well, that’s when I was swayed away.”

… Or Billy Gibbons…

“That sound? God. I’d have to search for a whole string of words. It would be a whole chapter in itself.”

… This is the stuff that brings Million Dollar Les Paul to life. Ultimately, the words of the legendary artists who have had the privilege to play a Les Paul Standard the way it was meant to be played, and Bacon’s own clear appreciation of their artistry, are what help to make the iconic instrument real for us within these pages.

To let Gibbons have another say, “These things were made to be played. They were not thought of as classic instruments. They were made to make loud noises, irritating sounds. That’s my view.” And while it’s just one among the many in this must-read for any Burstophile, it’s the kind of grounded view that keeps it all real amid the mind-bending price tags. A captivating read, and a document that no guitar fan should miss out on.

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